My First 48 Hours of Traveling Alone Were One Big Misadventure–And I Lived to Tell the Tale

As someone who was still prone to getting lost in San Francisco after living there for five years, I got a lot of raised eyebrows when I told people I:

a) bought a one-way ticket to Colombia, and
b) was planning on traveling alone.

Three weeks before my flight to Cartagena, Colombia, I took a job in Barcelona, fully aware that that’s nowhere near Colombia. I spent literally an entire day researching the cheapest and most effective way to get there from Cartagena, which turned out to be flying to Panama for a three-hour layover before landing in Madrid, and then taking a bus to Barcelona from there. I decided to spend a couple of days in Madrid, because why not.

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Upon landing in Cartagena, I met up with some friends for the week. When they flew home, I still had 24 hours left in Colombia before my flight to Madrid the next day.

I checked into a hostel by myself, met a bunch of cool people and ran around the city with them for the night. The next morning, I went to the airport and flew to Panama for my layover without any drama.

When I tried to board the plane from Panama to Madrid is when the sh**show started. And yes – that is the best terminology to describe it.

Sh**show Part 1: I almost couldn’t board my plane.

A few minutes before the first boarding group lined up to get on the plane, I noticed I didn’t have a boarding group number. I went to the front desk to ask them about it. The gentleman working there asked if I had a permanent address in Spain, and when I said no, he told me I couldn’t board the plane to Madrid without a plane ticket proving I was planning on leaving Spain at some point. He then said I had roughly five minutes to do so.

After the mandatory 1-3 minutes of panic, I got on my phone and started trying to buy a ticket to Portugal for mid-August, since it’s close to Spain and therefore cheap to fly to. (Completely ignorant, at the time, of Schengen Zone rules.)

I was trying to do this on a little half-functional flip phone because someone stole my phone out of my purse at a bar the night before I flew to Colombia – but that’s another story.

Of course, the second I entered my credit card info on the Ryanair website and was about to hit submit, the airport WiFi stopped working.

I refreshed the page a million times and tried to disconnect and reconnect to the WiFi ad nauseam on both my phone and my tablet, and it still wasn’t working. I went to ask the people at the counter if I could possibly use their computer, because I wasn’t sure what else to do, and they basically said “too bad.”

The last boarding group was starting to get on the plane. I saw that there was another desk, so I tried my luck over there, but they too said I needed proof of a ticket out of Spain. When I said I was trying and the WiFi wasn’t working, they said they couldn’t help me and it must be my phone, but because the WiFi wasn’t working on both my phone and my tablet I knew that wasn’t the case.

I started going into panic mode, explaining (in Spanish) that I paid for the flight, and I was willing to buy a ticket to Spain, I just needed the WiFi to be working. They basically told me to go away. This is what I get for not getting an international SIM card before leaving the country.

I started thinking that the worst case scenario was I would sleep in the airport overnight and just keep trying to get the WiFi to work. However, a flight from South America to Europe isn’t cheap, I knew the airline wouldn’t reimburse me, and I can’t afford to lose the money I’d already spent on the flight, so I was like, hell no, I’m not letting this happen.

I said three or four times (in different phrasing) that I’d buy a ticket but I just needed a WiFi connection, and in the process of doing that, I watched the last person board the plane.

Finally, the woman at the gate called over another employee and asked him to make a hotspot on his phone for me so I could connect to the WiFi and buy the ticket. He did, I bought it, I thanked them both an embarrassing amount of times, and got my ass on the plane.

The second I buckled myself into the seat, I was like wait, hell yeah, this means I’m going to Portugal in two months.

TL;DR: Make sure you’re 100% clear on the visa policies in any country you plan to stay in for a long period of time. It’s also a good idea to check ahead of time if your destination usually requires a return ticket.

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Sh**show Part 2: I literally walked myself out of Madrid.

After spending nine hours flying through various time zones, I landed in Madrid, and instantly became aware that I was quite ill. I’ll spare you the details, but thus started a three-week battle with e-Coli that I assume I picked up when I bought a bowl of cut fruit on the beach in Colombia.

After spending a very long time in the airport bathroom, I found myself in a two-hour-long customs line. When I was very released, I realized my phone was dead. I went to ask the people in the tourist information booth for a map of Madrid, and showed them the address of my hostel. They showed me that it took two trains and took about 45 minutes to get there, but that would put me right in front of the hostel.

Easy! …Right?

When I got off at the second stop, I found a cheap place to grab food. The super nice guy who worked there let me charge my phone behind the counter while I ate, and when I got it back, I saw that I was actually an hour away from my hostel on foot, not right in front. I wasn’t sure how that happened, but didn’t think it was a big deal, because walking around a new city is the best way to explore it anyway.

So, I started walking, but 15 minutes into it my phone died again. I stopped on a street corner and took out the map from the airport. I glanced up at the street sign closest to me. I couldn’t find it anywhere on the map, so I just kept walking until I found a train station. I looked at the metro map outside of the station – but the metro symbols on the map didn’t match the ones on the map I had. Hmmm.

I had now been walking for around an hour, with a dead phone, and a map I couldn’t read. I saw a taxi drive by, and I thought it might be a good time to throw in the towel and get some help. Also, when you have e-Coli poisoning, you have to go to the bathroom a lot, and it was about that time.

I hailed the taxi and showed the driver the address of where I was trying to go.

He looked at the paper, looked back at me, and said (in Spanish), “This is in Madrid.”

“…Sí…,” I said. Duh, sir.

Pero no estamos en Madrid,” he explained. Turns out I literally walked myself into another Spanish city. Because of course I did.

It was about a 20 minute car ride to where I was trying to go, and he initially said it would be 40 euros, but seeing my facial expression, he only charged me eight. I got lucky.

TL;DR: If you’re in a new city and awful at directions/general map reading, it would probably be a good idea to have a charged phone when you arrive. Also, I now know that the app MAPS.ME is a freaking godsend. (No, they did not pay me to say that.)

Sh**show Part 3: I confused the time zones.

I finally get to the hostel (Cat’s Hostel), but because I had reserved the hostel bed in America (time zone #1) for when I got to Madrid (time zone #2) after Panama (time zone #3), I had tried to do the math but messed it up, so I was a day late for my reservation. They said they had room at their sister hostel, and I asked how far away it was, thinking that with the luck I’d been having, it would be an hour away by foot – but it was just around the corner (Mad Hostel).

TL;DR: Know what time zone you’ll be in. Check your math. If you’re not sure, Google it.

What started out as a series of unfortunate events (book series from 2002 reference intended) ended up as a lovely four days full of lots of new friends. I managed to take the bus from Madrid to Barcelona without incident and have been in Barcelona for a little over a week now.

I’m awful at directions and apparently can’t deal with things like time zones, so if I can travel alone and end up fine (albeit make some stupid mistakes), you can, too.

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